Last night, I spoke to my father on Skype for over an hour, because there was much to catch up on. His directness, combined with his no-nonsense tone, over the years, has never ceased to amaze, amuse or annoy me, and that has been mutual. Strangely, he encouraged my childhood precociousness, but that outspokenness and verve led to many of our clashes. “Children are to be seen and not heard” wasn’t a maxim used in my house, but I know, as the child and not peer, I overly exercised the right to speak a few times.
It’s always been said that we’re too much alike, and therein lay many of our conflicts; however, now that I’m many years beyond my “problem years,” I can see that he’s done what only a parent can– be brutally honest for the greater good. We’ve both mellowed out a lot. (It had to happen, right?)
With time, I’m recognizing some of the lessons he tried to impart, that completely infuriated me then, and the new ones that I really appreciate:
1) Be responsible with your money. Once, when I was 23, I asked my father to borrow $40, to which he answered “No.” I couldn’t believe it, ’cause I needed the cash, and I knew that he had it. It all seemed so unfair and selfish that it rankled me to the core. Why should I be held accountable for the money I earned, when there was cash that could be borrowed. I never forgot that, and it took years for me to see that he was right. I, also, never forgot that a week later he sent me a check for $200 to “help,” and a note about money management. (The message is just now registering.)
2) Show up on time. Jamaicans are allergic to clocks, and watches (except as fashion statements), but my father shows up early for every occasion. It’s so un-Jamaican of him– this punctuality thing, and it must boil down to his many years of living and working in New York. I hear there may be others like him, but I’ve never met them. He once told me that a funeral we were attending started two hours earlier than it really did, because he wanted me to get there at 1pm, the designated time. When I showed up late, and somewhat amused that I had been deceived, he only replied that if he’d said the correct time, we would have been late and disrespectful to the family of the deceased. Point taken. It’s only in the last three years that the message has taken root. Time is the most valuable commodity anyone has, and someone who shows up late (repeatedly) doesn’t know its worth.
3) Be good to others. There was a childhood Christmas that I distinctly remember where my brother and I had to choose the gift we liked the most, drive with our parents to an impoverished neighborhood, and give it to a less fortunate child. The lessons that were important to learn then were: 1) We were fortunate to have what we had, and our good fortune should be shared 2) No one is beneath or above us, especially not due to finances. We’re connected on a deeper level. 3) Giving feels even better than receiving.
4) Be crazy. There were three things that my father said to me constantly while growing up, “Ma nishtana halila hazeh,” (loosely translated as “Why should this day be different from any other”), “Lusmishinup,” (spelling and language unknown– but essentially, “Shut up” said affectionately), and “I’m going crazy, you wanna come?” There were times in my childhood when we’d be sitting around, and my father would get the car keys and say, “I’m going crazy, you wanna come?” The act of spontaneity, the getting up and going on an adventure, always resulted in happiness. Mind you, the “crazy” was never very crazy at all– Devon House for an ice-cream cone, a drive around town, to the house of one his friends for conversation where I played with one of the kids or listened to the adults talk about things I couldn’t understand as someone’s pipe smoke lingered over my head, a drive for a patty, a respite from the ordinariness of life. In all my years, my travels have never been as exciting as going along for the ride and “going crazy,” and I’ve never forgotten that it’s important to get up and get moving sometimes.
Last night, my father said, “What’s this India thing I read on your blog? How many pieces of you are there that you still need to find yourself?” He made me laugh, though his question was serious. There are so many pieces of all of us, discoverable and undiscoverable, but I’m so thankful to my father that many identifiable pieces are whole and intact– awareness, esteem, humor. He was never a softie, or the teddy bear type of dad, but his actions spoke of many things incommunicable by words.